Monday, November 4, 2013

FREDDY THE FINGER

Father’s Day 1998 stands out in the highlight reel of my life. On that day, I had a one-on-one, Philadelphia Zoo road trip with my four-year old son Andrew. One of the golden moments of that day was the two of us riding on a camel. It was remarkable because Andrew had difficulties with motion, (I saved a fortune by never putting quarters in the mechanical horsey ride at the supermarket.  Andrew did like climbing on but all he wanted to do was sit…still).
AMAZINGLY, BY THE TIME ANDREW WAS EIGHT, HE HAD GRADUATED TO HEAVY-DUTY ROLLER-COASTERS.
I saw the camel ride up ahead and thought it would be cool for him to see. We watched for a minute then I said with tongue in cheek, “How about me and you riding that camel.” He said, “Okay.” I was in shock. On one hand, I wanted to strike quickly before he came to his senses…but on the other hand…just going on wasn’t good enough for me. I rolled the dice and took a gamble. I scanned the benches in the shady spectator area along side the ride and scoped-out the most trustworthy looking senior citizen I could find. I approached a kindly looking gentleman and asked him if he would mind using my camcorder to chronicle our three-minute odyssey.
I DON'T HAVE ANY STILL PHOTOS OF THIS WONDERFUL MOMENT IN PARENTING, BUT YOU'LL GET THE IDEA OF WHAT WE DID FROM THIS SHOT.

In adulthood, I have prided myself as being as excellent judge of character. Had I not trusted my thousand-dollar photo equipment with this man, I would have lost out on a tiny segment of film that’s worth a gazillion dollars to me.

This great moment in my life came to mind last month but for the wrong reason; this time my usual sharpness about people let me down. I’m certain when Charlieopera hears how I missed spotting a hump in the crowd he’ll say, “Oy vey! Are you stunod or what?”  (Of course there’s still a glimmer of hope that I’ll be proven right, but until that happens, it seems that my random act of kindness has come back to bite me in the ass…to the tune of a thousand dollars).

I won’t bore you with the details of my poor judgment until a final decision is reached, (maybe a lot will change until I go to press…in 48 hours). Until then, I will demonstrate a 1981 example of how I developed my ability to judge good character.

The following is an excerpt from my short story, “FREDDY THE FINGER.” This story is significant because it represents why I turned to writing out my Las Vegas adventures. I rarely told my father any details of the craziness I was exposed to while living out west. I was afraid he wouldn’t approve of my associations and the situations that I got into. After dad died suddenly in 1995, I realized how much he loved, “Freddy the Finger.” I should have had more faith in him and shared all my experiences with him. So, as a legacy to my son, wife and friends, I started writing these stories, (there are twenty).

I was twenty-four when I started dealing craps at the Stardust, on the fabulous Las Vegas strip. That’s quite an accomplishment considering I had no connections and only fifteen months experience. The other dealers were savvy and much older than me.  The low-level managers (boxmen and floormen) were rarely under forty and many were over seventy.

While I was still trying to fit in when my boxman (the immediate supervisor sitting between the dealers who regulates the game) fell asleep while our craps game was in progress. During his snooze, unattended cash buy-ins were strewn in front of him...and the other dealers weren’t rousing him. I wasn’t sharp enough to realize that Freddy Cantor was widely disliked. Far worse, I was witnessing him getting “jackpotted,” in the hope that this dereliction of duty would get him fired. When he started to snore, I nudged him and said, “You okay?” He sprang to life, plunged the money into the drop box and murmured, “I’m just a little tired.”

On one of our mutual breaks, Freddy profusely thanked me and added, “I owe you big time.” I shrugged it off but he said, “Lemme give some thought on how to repay you. You might have saved my job.”

In the days that followed, I was told that he was the most hated guy on our shift and that everyone called him, “Freddy the Finger.” I guessed his nickname came from the middle finger or giving someone the finger. But instead, it pertained to him, because the staff thought he was a rat, (a weasel that collaborated with management to “finger” malcontents, thieves and poor employees). Interestingly, Freddy was also missing his left ring finger, (even stranger, he wore his wedding band on his middle finger).
FREDDY TOLD DIFFERENT PEOPLE DIFFERENT STORIES ABOUT HIS MISSING FINGER.  THE MOST COMMON VERSION WAS IT WAS CUT OFF WHILE SCREWING-AROUND WITH THE MACHINES IN HIS UNCLE'S LEATHER GOODS FACTORY.  BUT HE ALSO TOLD A SELECT FEW THAT IT WAS SHOT OFF IN A POLICE RAID WHEN HE WAS A BOOKIE.  THE DRIBBLE HE SAVED FOR ME WAS, THE LEADER OF A PUERTO RICAN YOUTH GANG CUT IT OFF AFTER FREDDY IMPREGNATED THE GUY'S SISTER AND REFUSED TO MARRY HER.

Freddy didn’t help his cause by smoking effeminate, thin, brown cigarettes and speaking with a creamy lisp. But what galled the casino staff much more was that he was sarcastic and had the swagger of a tough guy. Plus, he was also a namedropping braggart who implied he was so well-connected that he was untouchable. I learned right away that the possibility of this assertion being true saved him from getting his ass mightily kicked. I was so young, I thought Freddy was interesting. But just about everyone else thought he was a boorish exaggerator and a chronic liar.

Part of what made Freddy interesting to me was that he was from the Bronx and we shared many cultural similarities. So when we worked together and had laughing fits that bordered on being unprofessional, his enemies assumed that he was taking me under his dastardly wing.

One afternoon, the skies blackened as a wind-driven rainstorm ravaged Vegas. At 4:00PM, it was so dark that the automatic street lights cut on. An hour later, the power went off and I couldn’t get a dial tone. Huge palm fronds flew off the trees and smacked the exterior walls of my apartment. I kept imagining that a tree was going to crash into my kitchen. I couldn’t even take my mind off the situation by reading the newspaper because I had no candles or a flashlight. I was too nervous to sit there by myself so I got ready and left for work early.

The walk to my car was treacherous as rain and debris pelted down on me.  I must have looked like a mime struggling against the gale as I side-stepped loose household garbage, branches, rolling trashcans and a plastic chair. I turned on the car radio to hear a weather report but the Allman Brothers, “RAMBLING MAN,” caught my interest.

My two-block drive down Harmon Avenue to the strip was like viewing a nightmare through a kaleidoscope. My defroster didn’t work so I had to use my dealer’s apron to constantly wipe away the condensation. Up ahead, in the odd eclipse-like darkness, between the sweeps of my hyper-speed windshield wipers, I noticed something curious. Through the blurry, surreal mosaic, it turned out to be the twirling rack lights of a police cruiser. I was going five miles per hour as I zig-zagged around the obstacle course of fallen crap in my path. When I reached the cop car, a crew of fluorescent yellow-slickered workmen attended to a downed telephone pole.

On the next street, I saw a single dim, auxiliary light at the back of the Aladdin Casino. I made my right onto the strip and couldn’t believe that the daily glut of pedestrians (tourists) was missing. It felt apocalyptic without all the glittery neon signs as I crept without having to compete with other traffic past the MGM, Caesar’s and Flamingo. Next I went by the equally eerie, unlit Desert Inn and Sands. At the Frontier, their majestic marquee publicizing Roy Clark’s week-long appearance was half lit. On the brighter side, I caught a glimpse inside and it seemed like normal casino activity.

Before I reached the blackened Silver Slipper Casino, Roy Clark came on the radio playing, “GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY.” What a coincidence to see his name and seconds later hear him sing on the radio. A sense of normalcy hit me as I pounded the steering wheel to the beat. Suddenly, I slammed on my brakes as an inside-out umbrella flew by me, across from the Stardust’s parking lot. That’s when I noticed one billboard completely lit-up…advertising that the circus was coming to the Convention Center.

Sheets of rain and howling wind made me scurry to the Stardust time office. But as the storm continued outside, it was business as usual inside. And that meant finding Freddy the Finger in the break room telling a group who didn’t care (but politely listened) how he used a hacksaw for two hours, to cut away the branches that hemmed his car in. His captive audience rolled their eyes and snickered as he claimed to have driven onto his neighbor’s lawn, to get around a UPS truck, in order to get to work.

Freddy hustled me away for a private conversation. “I haven’t forgotten my debt. How about me and my wife, taking you and your girl, to the circus next week?” I groaned, “Nah.” “Who are you, Mr. Maturity? A friggin’ circus is too juvenile for you?” I said, “Really, you don’t owe me…” “I get it,” he said, “you’re afraid a clown is going to put cotton candy in your hair…oops bad example. I should have said cotton candy on your head.” I laughed, “You’re an asshole.” He said, “Okay, no circus. But how about lobster…you aren’t afraid of the best food on the goddamned earth are you?” I said, “Lobster is good.” Freddy said, “It’s settled, me and Estelle are taking you and your girl to the Tillerman…for a soup to nuts lobster dinner.”

A week later, two hours before our big date with the Cantor’s, Freddy called.  He lived up to his reputation of being a liar by saying, “Estelle isn’t in the mood for seafood so we’ll eat chinks instead.” I was in no position to say no. He said, “Do you know Jung Jie’s ? They make a great lobster Cantonese.”

In the restaurant’s bar, Freddy made the introductions. Estelle Cantor was wearing her gold Century-21 blazer. She was especially unattractive and a rather large woman. But that was no reason to dislike her, her personality did that as soon as she opened her big fat mouth. In an overly loud, shrill nasal voice, she announced that she could only give us two hours because she had a final walk-through on a Tudor, on Alta Drive.
IT'S NO COMPLIMENT, ESTELLE CANTOR SOUNDED JUST LIKE SHEILA BROFLOVSKI FROM TV'S "SOUTH PARK."

While sipping a tropical drink out of a plastic pineapple, she never stopped babbling about real estate.
ESTELLE WAS A PLASTIC PHONY, JUST LIKE FREDDY.

Freddy idolized his wife.  He stared in awe of her as she rattled-off celebrity clients and awards she won. When she finally paused I tried to get Sue (she was my girlfriend back then) into the conversation. Estelle interrupted, “Did I tell you that Tudor on Alta is going for 175K? Frederick darling, tell me, what’s the commission going to be?” Instantly he proclaimed, “Ten-five!”  Frederick? I was gagging from all her pretense and was about to puke in my beer when the maitre d came to escort us to a table.

I thought we were saved from Mrs. Cantor’s yapping but she started blithering to the maitre d in Mandarin Chinese. When a waiter came by with menus after we were seated, Estelle shooed him away and announced for the entire dining room to hear, “I hope you don’t mind, I already ordered for the table.”

Estelle NEVER stopped talking as the plain wonton soup arrived. She was still jawing as we each ate our one egg roll appetizer. When she finally stopped talking about herself she said, “On the way out, I must compliment the chef…he’s really out done himself.” Sue and I looked at each other and controlled our laughter.

We were all served the same entrée, roast pork egg fu yung, (a Chinese omelet). This was not lobster at the upscale Tillerman. Nor was it lobster Cantonese. Sue and I were not from Mars. In fact as New Yorkers, we are required by law to know all the ins-and-out of Chinese food...and what we had…was the most basic, cheapest things on the menu.

Freddy saw the disappointed look on my face. He cut-off his wife as she explained the value of a valley view, “Did you know Estelle made the newspaper by risking her life with an armed robber at Albertson’s?” She broke in, “It was nothing! They called it passive resistance but nobody was going to makes moi lay on a filthy floor.  Besides, I knew that runt was going to give me the gun as soon as I saw those weak, beady eyes.” Sue and I looked at each other in disbelief as she continued, “You kids should drop by my office. You can see all my awards, read the newspaper article and the framed letter of thanks I got from the supermarket.” At that point, I was positive Mahatma Gandhi would have strangled her and felt no remorse.

You'd think it couldn’t possibly get worse but it did. Estelle started a sales pitch, “You know renting is a terrible waste? What’s your combined income? Do you have any outstanding debts? Are you planning a family?”

She never came up for air as she plowed-on about a fenced-in yard, a two-car garage and the curb appeal of nice landscaping. That’s when she finally got to her point, “Because…I can work with anyone, to put them into their perfect home…”

Two bites into my omelet, I decided I had enough. I held my stomach and croaked, “I feel lousy!” In her typical nagging tone Estelle chimed in, “Listen Bubbula, you ate too fast. Take a rest, have some dessert, you’ll be okay.” “No,” I snapped as I stood. “I have terrible stomach cramps.” I turned to Sue and said, “C’mon doll, we gotta go.” Sue followed my lead. She thanked them and sharply whispered, “He can only ‘go’ on his own toilet.”

Estelle loudly said, “I understand, I’m lactose intolerant myself.” We were halfway to the exit when she blared loud enough for them to hear in the kitchen, “I’ll take care of the check.” Sue and I were at the door when she boomed again, “Wait, you forget to take my card.” I opened the door to freedom, looked back, held my hand on my belly and bleated, “Thanks.” Estelle shot up out of her chair and yelled, “Freddy’ll give you my number. Call me when you’re ready to buy.” In the sanctuary of the car I joked, “That was nothing but a friggin’ commercial. That’s why nobody at work likes Freddy, he must have promised them all lobster dinners with his wife.”

I dodged Freddy for several days. During that time, I confided in one of the elder dealers and told him how much of a douche Freddy turned out to be. He wasn’t shocked about my ordeal in the Chinese restaurant. But I got his attention when I leaked that Freddy said he was afraid of losing his job after I woke him up. That meant he wasn’t “untouchable” like had implied. This dealer concluded, “Good, I’m glad you figured it out on your own. Because it’s not a good idea to be associated with…well, you know what I mean.” I nodded but I didn’t know what he meant.

A few days later, I worked with Freddy for the first time since our date from hell. I tried not to laugh but he knew how to push the right buttons. So I settled into the idea that he was a fun work friend but not a friend outside work.

Later in that laugh-filled shift, we were standing dead. I saw Freddy staring down at the bankroll, straining to hold back laughter by covering his mouth with his hand. For a second he looked up with his hand still firmly clasped over his mouth. He looked like he was going to explode into another laugh spasm as he pointed with his eyes to the far right. He then resumed staring at the chip bank. When I saw what he meant, my head involuntarily sprang back to the left as I too became paralyzed with Freddy’s laughing affliction.

This kind of childishness was not tolerated at the Stardust and I didn’t want Freddy to get me in trouble. I composed myself and concentrated my gaze on the center of the craps game. Freddy had calmed down too but at one point, our eyes met and we started all over again. We had gotten away with our petty silliness all night but this was different, everyone near our table stopped to gawk at us.

Our floor supervisor leaned between us. In a condescending tone, he asked in his southern-accented baritone voice, “Are you two boys all right?” It sounded pretty funny coming from a man who reeked of cheap booze every night. Nonetheless, we assured him that we were all right.

To reduce the risk of a relapse with ten minutes left before my break, I stood erect and stared straight ahead. The next few minutes took an eternity. Then I heard the last thing I wanted to hear, another dealer (the stickman) on my crew calling out, “Hey little buddies, wanna play craps?”

That dealer was Walter "Disaster" Lemaster.  He earned his screw-up nickname by being a burnt-out Vietnan War vet with a talent for saying and doing the dumbest things. I knew what this moron was referring to so my mind screamed, "Don't turn around..." but of course I did.

In a split second, I looked, saw my worst fear and turned away again.  I muffled my laughter as saliva flowed into my palm.  But when I heard Freddy roaring, I too was howling.  With hundreds of eyes on me, I squeezed my stomach muscles.  Then from the diaphragm, I took three deep breaths. I maintained my composure even though Freddy was still in stitches.

Through my teary cararact-like eyes, without laughing, I watched the proceedings on the other side of the table.  This would be the day that I learned the difference between midgets and dwarves.

These two four-footers were a father and son.  They were dragging slot machine stools to our table when I got my first good look at them.  The dad was excited and cheerful but the son who seemed to be going through the motions to please his dad was austere.  From his attitude, I gathered that he knew they was getting laughed at and didn't like it.

Despite my new choir-boy pose, the son who was now positioned on his knees atop the stool, kept giving me dirty looks. 

The dad was shorter.  So to play, he had to stand on the stool and hold the craps table rail with his hand.

It was decided that the father would shoot the dice first.  I am clueless (even thirty-plus years later) what possessed Freddy to tell Walter, "Give him the 'short stick.'"

Freddy was kidding.  But Walter's military background compelled him to follow orders.  He was so buried by the absurdity of Freddy's statement that he left the dice a bit too far away from the dad, (this ploy was saved for women in low-cut blouses.  So when they reached for the dice, they further exposed their cleavage). 

The dad would have had trouble getting the dice under normal circustances.  So when he strained to pick up the dice, he lost his balance and tumbled onto the table.  Now everyone was hysterical...with Freddy screaming the loudest.

The son was doing a slow burn as his dad writhed like a turtle on its back.  Each time the poor man tried to flip over, his foot bumped the concave rubber lip that rims the table.

Our pit boss Chick Halversen rushed over and exclaimed, "What the fuck is going on?"  Now nobody was laughing!  The dad was now standing on the table as he set himself to climb the table's wall.  Chick repeated himself, "What happened?"  The dad peeked over his shoulder with a cute chuckle, "This always happens to me."  Chick shook his head, "Just when I thought I saw it all..."  Chick came around to greet the dad in the aisle and offered them a meal ticket.  As the two men walked away, the son turned back and gave me a harsh glare.  But because his dad took the high road...none of us were disciplined.

At quitting time, my crew along with Freddy, decided to have a drink across the street at the Silver City Casino.  I was tired and turned them down.  While they lingered until everyone was ready, I left. 

On my way to employee lot, I found out there had been another downpour during the night. I hopped over puddles and walked around the mini-lakes.  Then I heard my name called.  It was that idiot Walter.  He was excited and happy as he ran straight towards me.  I back-pedaled so I wouldn't lose my homeward momentum.  I was shaking my head in disbieleif as I watched the Neanderthal splash through every puddle in this path.  Then I carelessly stepped into a water-filled crater.  The bottom of my left pant leg, my shoe and sock were sopping wet.  I was hobbling when Walter said, "Are you okay?"  I was surprised he didn't laugh at my mishap and had enough sense to ask about my well-being.  I said, "I'm lucky I didn't twist my ankle."  Walter had a perplexed look as he stammered, "N-n-n-o.  Are y-y-you okay from b-b-b-before, when you clocked out?"  I knew he hated being called by his nickname and said, "Disaster, what are you talking about?"  He said, "Then you're okay?"  I said, "Heh?"  He said, "Hey man I j-j-just wanted to know before I said anything..."  "Said anything about what?"  Walter slapped my shoulder and said, "They fired the finger!"

2 comments:

Sol said...

This blog suddenly reminded me of a 1932 movie called FREAKS. For a while there, after your shift ended and as you're walking towards your car, I thought you were going to be attacked by the midget and his dwarf dad in retaliation for all that laughter.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stXcSdV7IeU

A very strange movie, indeed! Makes me wonder whatever happened to 'The Finger' after he got canned.

Anonymous said...

Good story and good writing. I disliked Freddy but I hated Estelle Cantor. I wonder how she sold any properties. --- SLW